There were two obvious narratives to be considered after the end of what was by the end a hectic day of boxing at the AIBA Boxing World Championships in New Delhi yesterday. The more colourful happier tale was of the eight boxers who made it to the quarter finals from India––the second most of any nation in this edition. Their fortunes, form, and skill would make the colourful headlines.
By the time we had finished this piece India had already assured themselves of a medal, courtesy of, who else but the poster girl of Indian boxing, MC Mary Kom, who blasted past China’s Wu Yu (5-0) in the quarter finals of the 48kg category.
The greyer tale begins now. In truth the greyer tale began from the moment the first Indian boxer yesterday, Sonia Chahal, clad in blue, swung her arms up, declared the winner in a close bout against Stanimira Petrova in the pre-quarter finals of the 57kg category. Petrova’s immediate reaction was a sarcastic cheer, and a petulant wagging of the finger towards the Indian corner. Her coach, Petar Losav was not quite so subtle. He refused to shake Sonia’s outstretched hand and threw a bottle towards the stands, taunting the crowds of school children in the stands, gathered there with the aid of an unfailing bribe––a day away from school.
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Losav’s reaction might merit a piece of its own, somewhere, but for us more significant is the chain of events set in motion by the Bulgarian athlete and her coach, and subsequent murmurings that trickled first through to the media scrum, then to the administrative PR bubble, and finally on Twitter. Petrova wasn’t quite Michael Conlan in her outburst against the judging, but if she had been offered Bulgarian as her language of choice for the interaction she couldn’t have put it better. “I want to say only one thing. It is a corruption by the judges. It is not a fair result,” she said.
That makes two former champions in two days. Where Petrova was vocal in her disapproval of the judges, Kazakhstan’s Dina Zholaman chose the tried and tested method of the sulk after her loss to Manisha Maun on Sunday.
These are statements the of the sort AIBA would happily to avoid right now. The federation has been plagued by inconsistencies in judging, and corruption accusations, since the 2016 Rio Olympics. In an extraordinary revelation at those Games a senior official within AIBA talked about deep rooted corruption in the sport. In conversation with the Guardian, the official said the only way to clean up the sport was to remove the President CK Wu, and urged the IOC pay heed.
Sure enough, that statement was a wake up call, albeit one that took some time before action was finally meted out. A few months later, AIBA suspended all the judges and referees who worked at the Rio Games. In a statement that sounded deliberately vaguely worded they said no ‘active interference’ in the results was found but they felt there had been a ‘detrimental impact on in-competition practices’. How judges can have a detrimental impact on a competition, without actively displaying biases, is anyone’s guess.
But judging controversies have remained -- most recently yesterday. And in fairness, perhaps it is safe to say that in boxing, they will never really go away.
Despite what onlookers often think is a clearcut sport, amateur boxing is inherently layered, often very technical, and most bouts are judged on the clearer incidents. To analyse the Sonia-Petrova bout, a look at the scorecards shows that all five judges gave Petrova the second round and Sonia the third round. The split occurs in the opening round, where three adjudged Sonia to be the better boxer in the round.
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A closer look at the opening round is no clearer. In a round where both boxers failed to engage, Petrova, for a large part looks the cockier, hands down, circling to invite Sonia on. Sonia, for her part doesn’t rush in. She waits and counters. There is a lot of swing and miss, limbs entangled, and the occasional jab that lands clean. The single clean punch in the round––a punch that would have been worthwhile even at the professional level––comes with 7 seconds left on the clock, Sonia latching a left cross that snaps Petrova’s head back. A significant enough moment, at perhaps the most opportune time to effect a judge’s scoring.
Regardless, the controversy has followed. And while the obvious murmurings of ‘hometown bias’ are doing the rounds, with most foreign boxers in agreement that unless the bout is a clearcut dominant performance the local always has a chance, there is one Indian who will definitely beg to differ.
There will be repercussions for the incident. The immediate ones will be levelled at Pertova and her coach Losav of course––AIBA immediately released a note intimating that investigation was underway. The larger ones will be focussed more inward. There is talk among several coaches at the World Championships that some rules need to change to avoid such controversies. An analyst with the Indian team who asked not to be named said that while, “things are not quite as fixed as made out to be, it would help if they went back to a system where scoring was transparent, and boxers as well as coaches knew where they stood after each round.”
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The danger of that of course is inaction, where the winning boxer spends time steering away from the action. A simpler solution offered is to borrow from wrestling, where inaction is docked a point and video referrals may offer clarity in close exchanges. Like in most sport though (football the latest to suffer), video, will drag the rawness of the action and reduce the controversy itself very minimally.
The truth though is that in a highly subjective grievance ridden sport like boxing where the greats as well as the simpletons have often found reason to complain against judging (the first Gennady Golovkin - Canelo Alvarez bout the most recent example) it may be tough to clean up an often unclear act. To borrow from the sport itself, everyone involved should perhaps, just ‘roll with it’.